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This digital collection of thousands of page images of well-known and esoteric illustrated botanical plate books is inspired by an exhibition and subsequent monograph, Nature Illustrated: Flowers, Plants, and Trees, 1550-1900 (1989), by Bernard McTigue, the late former Curator of the Arents Collection and Keeper of Rare Books.
Books meant to distinguish different kinds of plants appear very early in the history of books and their production. Herbals, depicting plants used for healing and those with magical properties, were most often based on the works of the ancient writers, Dioscurides, Apuleius Platonicus, and Pliny the Elder. Preserved in medieval manuscripts, they emerged as a popular category of early printed book. Often they were illustrated with woodcuts, which to our 21st-century eyes, bear little resemblance at all to the named plant as it occurs in nature.
Rapidly developing printing technology, a revolutionary empirical spirit and the marvelous plants discovered in New World explorations in the 16th century, drove the development of books illustrated with more naturalistic and accurate depictions. The exquisite works of the great Dutch, English and French botanical illustrators are a highlight of European publishing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when various forms of metal engraving found a place in the manufacture of books.
The earliest herbal included here is Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants, Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick (1739). Mrs. Blackwell (1700?-1758) made laborious drawings of the plants in London's famous Chelsea Physic Garden, then engraved them herself, and produced this work in parts, which sold well and helped her obtain her husband's freedom from debtors' prison. Jacob Bigelow's American Medical Botany, Being a Collection of the Native Medicinal Plants of the United States (1817-20) contains very strong and arresting images. According to McTigue, this work by Harvard University professor Bigelow (1786-1879) was the first American book to be published with the plates printed in color." The poisonous Datura Stamonium is the first plant illustrated in the book. It is probably given pride of place in a American herbal because in 1676 a group of Royalist soldiers sent to Jamestown to quell a colonial rebellion were poisoned after consuming a stew cooked with the leaves. One of its many common names, "Jimson weed," recalls that episode.
The earliest botanical book in this digital collection is Jacques Cornut's ... Canadensium planetarium (1635). McTigue notes that it "is the first flora of the French colony of Canada ... with about thirty Northeast American plants being described for the first time."
Mark Catesby (1683-1749) is most famous for the birds he depicted in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (2.ed, 1754). Each bird is shown in association with a beautifully drawn and typical New World plant, and Catesby brought with him a rich collection of plants for use as study models when he returned to England in 1719 from his first voyage to Virginia.
Adventurous English people explored distant parts of their colonial empire in the 19th century. Botanical enthusiast Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), a collaborator of Charles Darwin, explored the remotest valleys and mountains of eastern Nepal and Sikkim in search of new Rhododendrons. Hooker is the author of Illustrations of Himalayan plants ... (1855), but the book owes its success to the great beauty of its hand-colored lithographs executed by botanical artist W.H. Fitch (1817-1892) from drawings by various Indian artists.
In the mid-18th century, the most influential European botanical artist was Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), who began his working life as a gardener's apprentice near Heidelberg. In NYPL Digital Gallery, engravings after his work appear in Hortus Nitidissimis omnem per annum superbiens floribus (1768-86) by Christoph Jacob Trew. Ehret's beautiful depictions provide a comprehensive catalog of the loveliest flowers cultivated in the princely and aristocratic gardens of the times. Pierre-Joseph Redouté, arguably the greatest flower painter of all time, is represented by two books-in-parts: the monumental Les liliacées (1805-1816) and the elegant Les roses (1817-1824). McTigue admires the "breathtaking delicacy'' and scientific accuracy of these renowned works.
Contemporary with Redouté's work, and equally famous, is Robert John Thornton's Temple of flora, or to provide the beginning of its official title, New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linneaus: ... (1807 [i.e. 1799-1810]). The work is the result of a collaboration of a team of painters and engravers under Thornton's direction, but here too many cooks did not spoil the broth as the great florilegium they produced has a wonderful unity of tone and appearance. Unlike Redouté, whose exquisite portraits of individual plants appear against a white background, Thornton and his artists set their flowers in moody and evocative landscapes, symbolic of the plants being depicted.
Two less august items in NYPL Digital Gallery also deserve mention: First, J. J. Grandville's Les fleurs animées (1847) provides very little scientific information, but is one of the most bizarrely charming of all 19th-century illustrated books. In it, a great caricaturist has drawn fashionable French ladies as lovely, wilting wildflowers or sinister poisonous herbs. The plate for the Narcissus shows a daffodil happily absorbed by her image a pond. In another, a frowning Hemlock, personified with mortar and pestle, prepares dangerous concoctions for her friends; a little frog has already died; a small mouse vomits; and a rabbit dressed as a Roman senator happily swallows his dose. Second, two sets of cigarette cards from the Arents Collection on Tobacco have beautiful illustrations of plants [see also Annuals: A Series of 50 (ca. 1932-1939) and Alpine Flowers: A Series of 50 (ca. 1907-1917)].
Blunt, Wilfrid. The Art of Botanical Illustration. (c1994)
_____. The Illustrated Herbal. (1994)
Collins, Minta. Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Traditions. (2000)
NYPL. Nature Illustrated: Flowers, Plants, and Trees, 1550-1990; text by Bernard McTigue. (1989)